The curse is finally broken! Not only is Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat reboot a bloody fantastic resurrection of the popular fighting game franchise, but it ends a long streak of visually ambitious video game adaptations with an 8-bit effort. As a gamer who is only peripherally familiar with the popular series that initially hit arcades in 1992, I found myself both engrossed and easily welcomed into the martial arts fantasy world.
McQuoid — alongside writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham — has an evident appreciation for the universe of Mortal Kombat and its memorable array of characters. But more than that, there’s a shared reverence for wuxia cinema, its elegant and intricate action aesthetic a feast for the senses. Furthermore, its convergence of various Asian languages and cultures raises vital awareness about the massive continent’s rich international diverseness.
Second only to 2017’s vastly underrated and underseen Power Rangers, this is also the rare U.S. studio blockbuster to heavily promote the sex appeal of its Asian leads. Hollywood has a dark history of desexualizing Asian protagonists — Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon is the most criminal example. It is encouraging to watch monumental progress be made with such widespread reach — the reboot debuted on HBO Max the same day as its theatrical release.
So what is this magical, brutal world with iconic one-liners? Well, it shouldn’t appear too unfamiliar since our planet is basically one of six realms, referred to as Earthrealm, to keep things simple. Each realm is represented by an overseer God, who recruits champions to fight in a deathmatch tournament known as “Mortal Kombat.” The competition is a way for the realms to keep each other in check, ensuring balance to avoid cross-universe war. However, with nine consecutive victories under its belt, the realm of Outworld is on the precipice of amassing a legion of undefeated warriors to invade Earth. All the dark realm needs is one more championship win, and its ruling sorcerer, Shang Tsung (Chin Han,) plans to break his sworn position of neutrality to conquer humanity.
Of course, even the most diabolical villain schemes have to contend with the inconvenience of prophecy. According to legend, the hero destined to stop Tsung and his minions is a descendant of famed ninja Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who was brutally murdered by Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) alongside his family in 17th-century Japan.
Vengeance is a long time coming, so watch out for Cole Young (Lewis Tan) and his fists of fate. The 21st-century dad is a cage fighter by day, trying to make ends meet for his wife Allison (Laura Brent) and daughter Emily (Matilda Kimber). Although their roles are minor, Brent and Kimber infuse their characters with proactive agency, refusing to be archetypal family figures standing on the sidelines in histrionic terror.
When Young and his family are intercepted by Sub-Zero — Tsung’s second-in-command and the strongest fighter in the Outworld roster — a man named Jax (Mehcad Brooks) intervenes, giving them precious time to escape. Jax is sent to confirm Young has the Hasashi bloodline by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), head deity of Earthrealm, and the heroic God responsible for rescuing Hanzo’s infant child to continue their genealogy.
Centuries later, history is repeating itself, written in as much blood and gore as the darkest of ages. Embracing the series’ signature violence and carnage, without ever devolving into grotesquery, was the right creative move by McQuoid, producer James Wan and Warner Bros. The sensory overload of frenetic yet comprehendible action only amplifies the feeling of being given a front-row seat to the biggest fighting stage in the universe.
Eventually, Young makes his way to Raiden’s hidden temple (though heavily fortified, it is not). There, he trains to unlock his gene-based special powers, the result of which symbolizes nothing is as sturdy as a man’s conviction to protect his loved ones.
Joining the new generation of champions are fan favorites Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Kano (Josh Lawson), the latter of whom wears his “douchebag” personality like a badge of honor. Don’t you worry, this isn’t a typical Hollywood biopic where a terrible man gets a redemption tour. Kano is a compelling character, but the script understands exactly which side of the fight he deserves to be on.
Because there are so many characters to throw into the mix for fan appeasement, popular fighters like Kung Lao (Max Huang), Mileena (Sissi Stringer), Reiko (Nathan Jones), Nitara (Mel Jarnson), and Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson) are shortchanged, but make the most of their spectacular entrances and exits. Even Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), the main protagonist of the original 1995 version, isn’t much of a focus, though kudos to Lin and Huang for making us care about their familial bond in so short a time.
Mortal Kombat comes into the 21st century with confidence and relevance, seamlessly carving its own space into mainstream moviegoing. The stakes may be high, but Earth is left largely unscathed by confrontation’s end, unlike most superhero films. That doesn’t lessen the awesomeness of an age-old rivalry coming full-circle in the most satisfying of ways. This is the rare popcorn blockbuster that convinces newcomers to the franchise that they’ve been diehard fans for decades. It doesn’t hurt that a revamped mix of the iconic techno theme — used strategically and sparingly — knows how to reignite nostalgic energy.
For moviegoers and fans alike, Mortal Kombat is the rare video game adaptation that leans into fun rather than attempting flawless victory.
Mortal Kombat is currently available on HBO Max and in theaters worldwide.